Before the military base, Katja would have said Rhea’s incessant chatter and multiple personal questions were annoying, but now she wants nothing more than for Rhea to say something.
“Where to?” Katja asks when the two of them exit the caves that house Vault 13, where Rhea can no longer return.
Rhea stares out at the horizon for a few seconds. There’s nothing but desert in sight. Just them — the two remaining members of their party — and the wasteland ahead.
“Touch base with the Brotherhood,” Rhea finally says.
They don’t talk at all the whole way there.
It rarely rains in the L.A. Boneyard, and when it does it’s often best to stay indoors until it passes in case it comes with radiation. Some of the older folk in Adytum who had lived elsewhere and travelled south to take up residence in the Boneyard later in life had said that it wasn’t as bad in other settlements. Some of the older folk who had been born in Adytum and lived there their whole life had said that it wasn’t as bad as it used to be, closer to the War. Katja hadn’t cared for being told one way or the other.
She also doesn’t care for being back in Adytum after having finally gotten away from it, but this is where Rhea wants to be for some reason, so here Katja is, once again.
When the rain is coming, Katja can feel it in the air. The atmosphere always feels thicker before a storm, smoggy and sweltering. Her head hurts and her eyes water and her skin crawls. She remembers back to when she young, barely older than ten or eleven, and she witnessed the worst storm of her life. She remembers how tense she felt in the hours before it struck, like the very air was suffocating her.
This is how she feels travelling with the vault dweller, now. Rhea is a storm about to break, but for the time being the tension just boils under the surface.
The thing is, even if a storm sets Geiger counters ticking, Katja always feels so much relief when it comes. Her body can finally relax, and when the storm is over, she can move on.
Since returning to the Boneyard, Rhea has taken to disappearing into the basement of the Boneyard Library, hiding between the bookshelves. When Katja needs her for something, that’s the first place she looks.
Rhea startles, looking up from a book about medical practice.
Katja sighs. Dogmeat had injured his leg in the Cathedral and Rhea had been distraught over how little she knew about mending limbs. It doesn’t matter now.
“Think you can put the books aside for a bit? I want to show you something,” Katja says.
“Sure,” Rhea says, though she sounds hesitant.
When Katja silently gestures for her to follow, Rhea slots the book back on the shelf and complies.
In a destroyed and empty building across the way from the Boneyard Library, Katja has set up a line of beer and Nuka Cola bottles along a table. Across the room, she has laid out all the throwing knives she had on hand, which is a hefty amount considering Rhea somehow manages to collect the things and then pass them all on instead of using them herself. Katja isn’t complaining, though.
Rhea raises an eyebrow at her once she has inspected the scene.
Katja holds out a throwing knife. “I’m going to help you toss better.”
“Who says I need help?” Rhea fires back, with more life in her tone than Katja has heard in weeks.
“I’ve seen you throw grenades, vaultie, I know you could use some tips.”
“You’ve also seen me shoot out a deathclaw’s eyes with a sniper rifle from a long distance,” Rhea says. “I don’t need to use knives.”
“Knives don’t use up ammunition.”
Rhea sighs and takes the offered throwing knife. “Fine, oh wise one, teach me.”
With a nod, Katja moves closer and puts a hand on Rhea’s shoulder. As expected, her muscles are as tense as the air has felt since the military base.
“Relax,” Katja tells her, pushing on her shoulder.
Rhea grumbles and shifts, and it takes her a long moment to loosen her limbs. When she raises the hand holding the knife, Katja can feel her shoulders tense right back up.
Rhea huffs in annoyance. “Combat situations aren’t relaxing.”
“The Nuka Cola isn’t going to retaliate, I don’t think,” Katja says. “Besides, you can relax enough to fire a gun with great accuracy, as you so humbly already pointed out a second ago. So relax.”
If anything, Rhea does the opposite.
“You’re overthinking it,” Katja says. “Here, let’s just go through the motions slowly until it feels more natural.”
She moves her hand onto Rhea’s wrist instead, adjusts her grip for her, and then directs her through the pull back. She moves slowly, bringing Rhea’s hand down to where it should be when she releases it. Based on the grenade tosses Katja has seen her do, Rhea needs the most help with timing her release.
She pulls Rhea’s hand back into the starting position and goes through the motion again. They repeat it over and over, and eventually, Katja can feel Rhea’s breathing slow down and muscles relax. While their bodies are this close, Katja can feel the warmth coming off of her, and see the slight movements every time she takes a breath.
Katja pulls away, stepping out of Rhea’s space. “Now do it at normal speed and release it.”
Rhea does as she’s instructed and the knife goes flying, spinning in the air until the tip is facing forward and crashes right through a bottle, causing an explosion of blue tinted glass, and then embeds itself in the cracked wall behind it.
“Nice one,” Katja says, smiling a little as she watches Rhea’s surprised reaction.
“I was aiming for the one beside it.”
Katja snorts. “Still progress.” She moves in close again and helps Rhea square up her stance a little. Then she grabs another knife and hands it over. “Try again.”
The next knife misses the bottle by a mere inch.
The second bottle that breaks causes Rhea to look a lot more pleased. “That time it was the one I was aiming for,” she says, holding out her hand for another knife. Katja keeps passing over more knives and Rhea keeps throwing them, getting better and faster each time.
With each bottle that shatters, more energy builds in Rhea’s frame. She becomes animated and confident, her eyes look brighter and more focused with determination, and for the briefest moment, Katja starts to feel like she can breathe again.
Only one bottle remains, and Rhea pauses. Her grip on the last knife tightens and holds it fast instead of firing it off with her newfound accuracy.
Katja watches her, feels the tension building back up, and deflates.
Rhea doesn’t turn to look at her, doesn’t say anything.
Katja steps out in front of her, obstructing her line of sight. She reaches out and gently pries the last throwing knife out of Rhea’s hand and slips it onto her belt. Rhea allows her arm to drop in response, but she still looks stiff and lost, and if a knife sailing towards an empty beer bottle was the lightning, the thunder is about to follow.
Rhea opens her mouth to speak and then her throat constricts like she’s choking on the words.
Katja doesn’t know how to comfort anyone. She’s never really had anyone she felt like comforting before, no one that mattered enough, no one she allowed to get close enough. There had been kids, growing up, who would look out for each other. Most of them are members of the Blades, now. She likes the Followers of the Apocalypse, but not enough to keep her tied to this town. For a place with so many people milling around, there are remarkably few that Katja gives a single shit about.
“Throwing knives always helps me unwind,” Katja offers. “I thought it might work the same for you.”
Rhea blinks and then meets her eyes, softening just slightly. “It did. Thank you. Just… there’s only one left.”
She looks back at the last bottle standing, eyes becoming watery. “Only one left.”
Katja sucks in a breath. She hadn’t known Ian and Tycho for long, being the last to join the little group right before the grand finale of taking down the Cathedral and Mariposa Military Base. The time it took to travel to the northern base was the only chance she got to interact with either of them and she’d mostly kept to herself other than getting to know Rhea. She could tell both of them and Dogmeat meant a lot to Rhea, though.
“I’m sorry,” Katja says, not knowing what else to say.
“They’re gone,” Rhea says, starting to tremble. “I couldn’t save them.”
Rhea had certainly done her best, as far as Katja is concerned. The vault dweller had constantly given them better equipment but the last fight in the military base had still been a rough one. If it weren’t for all the stimpacks Rhea had insisted she hold onto, Katja isn’t sure she would have made it out either.
“They knew the risk, but they wanted to be there with you. The risk was worth it.” Neither of them had said as much to Katja, they never had a chance to get that personal, but she certainly knows firsthand that there’s no reason for someone to willingly storm the base of a super mutant army unless the person believes in their leader and the mission. For Katja, it had little to do with protecting the wasteland and doing what’s right. She wanted away from Adytum and Rhea was a very interesting and alluring ticket out of town.
“I wanted them to get through it with us,” Rhea says. Tears finally start rolling down her cheeks. “I wouldn’t have even made it that far without them. When I met Ian, I still knew so little about survival out here. I could have died in Vault 15 without him. If it weren’t for Tycho, I would have been torn apart by the first Deathclaw we ever fought. And Dogmeat…”
She wipes at the tears on her face but new ones replace them just as quickly.
All Katja can think to do is wrap her arms around Rhea and pull her in close, anchoring her.
Rhea sinks in against her and cries into her shoulder for what feels like ages. Katja thinks about that storm when she was young, about sitting just inside the opening of a tent and watching the rain pour and pour for hours, lightning flashing and thunder rolling until it had exhausted itself and the sky cleared. She holds Rhea like she had held her arms around her knobbly and scraped knees, waiting for everything to calm down.
Eventually, Rhea starts to settle, but she stays where she is, tucked up against Katja’s chest.
“I feel bad that I don’t care more about the Overseer turning me away,” she says softly. “The reason I came out here was to protect my vault but I ended up caring about the people I meet out here more than them. I was angry at first but it’s so minor to comparison to how much I miss Dogmeat, Ian, and Tycho.”
Katja doesn’t know much about what Rhea’s life was like in the vault. For all that the vault dweller asks a lot of questions, she doesn’t say much about herself. “Did you have any family?”
“Not really,” Rhea answers. “Both parents have been gone for years. Never settled down myself. I did feel like I was part of a community, there, but not like out here.”
“Maybe you’ve always been better suited to this life instead.”
“Maybe,” Rhea says. With a soft sigh, she pulls away and rubs at the tear tracks on her face. “I’m just not sure what to do, now.”
“You can do whatever you want, go wherever you want. Seems to me like any of the towns you’ve passed through would welcome you.”
Rhea nods. “I like it here. There are so many people packed into one town and with the Regulators gone everyone seems content. And, I don’t know, I wasn’t sure if you would want to come back here now that the super mutants are taken care of.”
“What?” Katja says, blinking in surprise. “Did you think I wouldn’t want to travel with you anymore?”
Laughing doesn’t seem like the appropriate reaction for the situation, but Katja can’t help herself. Rhea looks more shocked than hurt, at least, but Katja tries to reel herself in as fast as possible. “Look, Rhea,” she says. “I’d follow you anywhere. I’m done with Adytum. If I never see this place again, it makes no difference to me. Joining up with you never came with the caveat that I’d return here after, you know?”
“Oh,” Rhea says simply. She looks away for a moment, the gears in her head working. “Okay. So, I don’t want to go back to the vault and you didn’t want to come back here. What’s next for us, then?”
The way she says ‘us’ makes something flutter in Katja’s stomach. “Whatever we want,” she says.
Rhea smiles for the first time since the military base. “Tomorrow morning, then. Let’s hit the road.”
She reaches forward and unsheathes the last throwing knife from Katja’s belt. With relaxed ease, she steps to the side and sends the knife straight through the last bottle against the wall. All that’s left is a mess of broken glass and a bunch of knives sticking out of the wall.
“That really is satisfying,” Rhea says.
“See, I knew it would work.”
“No problem. Besides, had to think of a good use for all these knives you keep giving me. I probably have enough to shatter every bottle in the Boneyard.”
Weirdly, Rhea blushes. She moves away to go start collecting the knives, but Katja still catches a quick glimpse of reddened cheeks before she goes. Katja doesn’t know what she has to be so bashful about; Rhea had gone to great lengths to equip them all throughout their journey, for the sake of their lives and the mission.
“What?” she asks.
Rhea busies herself carefully sweeping up some of the broken glass along the table. “I mean, you said it yourself before you helped me, I was terrible at throwing anything. Not like I had any use for them myself.”
It’s similar to what she said when she gave Ian her Power Fist, but she hadn’t blushed about that.
Rhea sighs, pulling the last knife out of the wall and turning to look back at Katja. “I’ve seen how you handle them idly, when I’m talking or bartering with people. You look really good when you’re flipping them, okay? It’s obvious you know what you’re doing, you never fumble or drop them, you have absolute confidence that you’ll catch them right and not hurt yourself. You just… look good.”
“Huh,” Katja says, surprised.
She goes over to help Rhea clean up the glass, needing something to do with her hands.
“Sorry,” Rhea says quietly. “That was weird, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, no it’s good,” Katja replies hurriedly. “I’m just, you know…”
Katja snorts. “No. Absolutely not. Just new to this kind of thing, and I didn’t expect you to feel this way too.”
Rhea brightens, smiling. The storm has cleared and the sun is out. “One day at a time?”
“Yeah,” Katja says, grinning back. “Let’s hit the road, you and me.”
It hardly ever rains in Arroyo, but when it does, Katja and Rhea hold each other’s hands and dance together under the downpour. This far away from big, old world cities, the rain is clear and fresh and feels good streaking down the bare skin of their arms and legs. The children of the village come out and play too, filling the air with the sounds of laughter and excited yelling as they chase each other around the camp.
Over the last several years, they’ve built up quite a community here, made a place to call home. They’ve started to grow old. In another month or so, the first grandchild of the village will be born, starting a whole new generation to their large family.
Rhea looks as lovely as ever with her greying hair and laugh lines creasing her face.
“I love you,” Katja says.
Rhea smiles and raindrops fall out of her eyelashes when she blinks. “I love you, too.”
They both lean in at the same time to share a kiss, tasting rain water on each other’s lips.